A Response to Dimitri Rotov – Part 1
As I stated in my opening message, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed browsing on a daily basis the blog maintained by Dimitri Rotov. He represents the kind of reader that I easily relate to. We are Civil War enthusiasts who demand intelligent history that continually challenges our central assumptions surrounding the war. Anyone familiar with Dimitri’s site knows that he is especially concerned about our tendency to interpret Gen. George B. McClellan from a naieve and simplistic perspective which ignores the historical context in which he operated. I’ve read most of Ethan Rafuse’s recent study of the general, called McClellan’s War (Indiana University Press, 2005). Rafuse emphasizes “Little Mac’s” Whig background and how that perspective shaped his thinking re: grand strategy. I do not want to get into a debate about whether Mac has been unfairly treated.
I am much more interested in Rotov’s obsession with historians James McPherson, Gary Gallagher, and Stephen Sears, who he claims continue to push a centennial style view of the war. I think this is unfair and looses sight of the way both McPherson and Gallagher have challenged specific assumptions of the war. Both McPherson and Gallagher have emphasized and led the way in encouraging students of the war not to overlook the myriad ways in which the battlefield was connected to the home front. Both historians have also emphasized the importance of slavery and emancipation as both central to understanding the cause of the war and the evolution of the war itself. The emphasis on social history is clearly a positive step; I believe that social histories of the war are by far the most interesting contributions in the last few years. Exactly how many studies of the second day of Gettysburg do we need? Gallagher has challenged the long-standing assumption that Confederate defeat was inevitable. This of course is a central assumption in the Lost Cause interpretation of the war. I can still hear Shelby Foote in his southern drawl argue that the “North fought that war with one hand tied behind its back.” He has also encouraged students of the war to acknowledge the ways in which ex-Confederates shaped the earliest histories of the war to serve their own political and perhaps psychological needs.
My point for now is that Rotov goes to far in his criticisms of these historians. I would urge him to be a bit more inclusive given his interest in Civil War historiography.